Is tipping your favorite waitress a form of corruption?

A new Harvard study finds a connection between tipping and corruption. Let’s consider the whole field of influence.

Some people get a lot of what they want because they are “charming”. There are lots of components to this and less charming people tend to get annoyed by the success of their more charming colleagues. Socially adept people (this group overlaps a lot with charming) get more of what they want. Good looking people get more than unattractive ones. Celebrities benefit at the expense of ordinary folks. We can all add to this long list. The various gifts tend NOT to be distributed equally. Charming people often tend to be attractive, perhaps because being attractive is related to behavior as well as physical looks. These advantages tend to make them more successful in other areas of life. Is this wrong?

Humans are social animals. We spend most of our time in social webs and are constantly working on way to improve our position or influence others. It is what we do, coded into our genes. Those who don’t do such things are thought to be weirdoes, maybe even psychopaths. Besides these sorts, we ALL care what others think of us. Those who claim they don’t care about the opinions of others – like those who claim they don’t care about money – are often the ones who think about it all the time. (If you really don’t care about something, you don’t talk about it at all. The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.)

Let’s get back to tipping. It depends on the cultural context. Canada and India have a similar level of tipping, but Canada is low corruption country and India is very corrupt. The motives are different. In Canada tipping is recognition of good service; in India it is a advance payment for future service.

Some countries automatically add in 10%. In those countries you do not tip beyond that. Don’t let those waiters in France convince you otherwise. I like this idea. It is not a tip for good service, but more of a piece work, i.e. the waiter makes more if he handles 100 customers than he does if he serves only one. That is fair.

In the U.S. I tip just under 20%, i.e. I figure the 20% then I round up to the nearest dollar below that amount so that the credit card bill is an even amount. I used to try to modulate my tip based on the service, but I don’t anymore unless it is extraordinarily good or bad. This is rare. I think if you stay at a hotel that has a free breakfast, you should tip about 20% of what you would have paid. This can lead to a type of favoritism, however. I often stay at a hotel where I get a free happy hour. I leave my 20% tip and I have found that I now get much better quality drinks than I used to.

This brings me to loyalty programs. I am a gold member at a hotel chain and on an airline. This is a sweet deal. That is why I get those free drinks I mentioned above and I get to choose the best seats on my flights. This is very explicit. I get stuff free that others have to pay for because I have behaved in a particular way in the past and the firms hope to encourage similar behavior in future.

None of us wants to be treated “as well as” everybody else; we want to be treated better, i.e. as individuals. This is an inescapable fact of human life. When does it become corruption?

IMO, it becomes corruption when people are giving you things that are not theirs to give. If I offer a tip from my own money, it is entirely my business and not corruption on my part. If you accept the tip and do the same sort of job you would have done anyway, maybe with a little more joy, there is no corruption on your part. The problem comes when we are acting for others. I cannot be generous with the money of others, so if I give you a tip paid for by my employer, this is corrupt. If you grant me favors at the expense of your employer, this is also corrupt.

Things can be very unfair w/o being corrupt. If I own a company and I give you a special deal just because I like you, this is not corrupt. We all try very hard to cultivate relationships that will provide us with exactly this. We call it networking or making connections. It is the biggest part of many people’s jobs. It is the biggest part of the job of people like presidents & CEOs. Once they get the relationships right, many other decisions are very easy.